Friday, August 24, 2012

Small, Mighty, and Loving It

"Maybe we are the strongest mouse in the world..."

Melkon Khosrovian, owner and founder of Greenbar Collective, was talking about his eight year-old distillery's place in the liquor industry, amidst the automated, big box corporations behind mass-marketed, chemical-based products. Unlike his behemoth competition, he is making not only organic, but artisanal, craft spirits (like TRU vodka and gin), and specializing in botanical infusions. It's a small kingdom, but as the City of Los Angeles' first distillery since Prohibition, for now, Greenbar is king.

And, having outgrown their Monrovia headquarters, they are just settling in to their new Downtown LA warehouse in the Arts District, as the first resident of the new CleanTech Corridor on E. 8th St., with the full support of the mayor.

Their business is growing exponentially - almost doubling in volume over the last year - without dramatically increasing their workforce beyond their nine current employees.

But who needs to be big? If your specialty is infusing bitters with lavender, fennel, apple, and Swedish herbs, who else can even touch that?

Greenbar's new facility is bright and shiny, like its tanks.

And its Vendome still may look old, but it, too, is brand-spanking new. It simply uses tried-and-true distillation techniques and technology - which suits the operation, which, at one point, was hand-filling, -corking, and -labeling all its bottles.

They still hand-cut vanilla beans, hand-zest oranges and lemons, and hand-smash other dry botanicals (like juniper berries for the gin).

Their new location is an old factory dating back to 1905, the rear of which faced out to an old freight train line. The abandoned easement now provides a canvas to street artists...

...and an airy spot to rest some oak barrels of infused whiskey which Greenbar has produced for an outside client.

Much of the building itself is original, including the wooden roof (which needed some patchwork, and whose skylights just got tagged with graffiti) and the brick exterior walls. On one side of the building, you can see a cinder block wall instead of bricks, from when the warehouse next door burned down.

But, like the still, the equipment is new and shiny and ready for some work. The workspace is aromatic.

Unfortunately, although there's a lovely bar upstairs, Los Angeles' (and California state's) zoning, codes, and laws are so strict, Greenbar can't open a functioning tasting room and/or retail space that's open to the public - yet. But they do hold some classes and private events (particularly for area bartenders) at their facility, and they have an open-door policy with their neighbors and the local community, allowing them to use their conference and meeting room spaces as needed.

There's something to be said for doing what you love, no matter how small the existing market is for it. But then again, the existing market doesn't say much for what the existing demand - the potential market - may be. After all, Melkon and his wife Litty started this business when their homemade liquor infusions' popularity expanded beyond their family circle, and they started receiving orders from people they'd never met.

A good friend of mine said there are three types of people in business: 1) those that need to be right all the time, 2) those that need to be liked all the time, and 3) those that need to win all of the time. I always classified myself in the latter category, thinking that it doesn't matter if I'm liked or right as long as I'm on the winning team. But what does it mean to win? Until now, I always thought it meant making the most money or selling the most, but now I think that in order to win, you have to do what you love, regardless of who your more commercially-viable, publicly-funded competition may be.

This idea of taking a specialty and running with it - establishing a real niche, no matter how small - turns the fish / pond idiom on its head. A small fish is powerless, insignificant (regardless, I suppose, of the size of the pond its in). A big fish is only powerful within the bounds of a small pond. Outside of that, who knows?

But the strongest mouse in the world - that is superlative. And Greenbar is paving the way for lots of other mice to follow in its footsteps. Hopefully they do.

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